MEMPHIS, Tennessee -- The United Methodist Church’s highest court ruled today that the Rev. Frank Schaefer will remain an ordained minister even though he violated official Church policy by officiating at his gay son’s wedding in 2007.
The Judicial Council decided in favor of the pastor purely on a technicality, saying that a Church jury in Pennsylvania had erred by defrocking the Rev. Schaefer last year. By taking this “safe” route, the Judicial Council managed to ignore the pink elephant in the room: gay marriage.
The UMC welcomes gay and lesbian members into its congregations, but falls short of endorsing or supporting marriage equality. The issue has torn apart the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
The Rev. Schaefer has said that the coming out of his son, Tim, compelled him to re-evaluate his beliefs about homosexuality and church policy. Then when his son asked him to officiate at his wedding in Massachusetts in 2007, the pastor readily agreed. The Rev. Schaefer did not disclose to his congregation or to the UMC that he had conducted a same-sex wedding, but a member of his congregation eventually found out and filed a formal complaint against him in 2013.
The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the Methodist Church put the Rev. Schaefer on trial later that year and defrocked him, generating international attention and turning the pastor into an outspoken ally for marriage equality and gay marriage. He also lost his job as pastor at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Pennsylvania. In July, he became pastor of a church in California.
The Associated Press described today’s ruling this way:
In its Monday decision, the Judicial Council noted that some might view the decision as a "flagrant disregard" for church discipline, while others will support it. "We are mindful of the divisions within our church," the decision reads.
The council essentially found that Schaefer was subjected to two distinct punishments for the same violation. First, he was given a 30-day suspension. Then he was defrocked after he would not promise to uphold the church's Book of Discipline "in its entirety." That second punishment was wrongfully imposed for a possible future violation.
Courage Campaign responds
Dr. Paul Song, executive chairman of Courage Campaign, reacted today to the news regarding the Rev. Schaefer, who was recipient of the 2014 Spirit of Courage Award.
“Today the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church reinstated Rev. Frank Schaefer as an ordained member of the clergy. Rev. Schaefer, who was defrocked last year for officiating has gay son’s marriage, has worked tirelessly and courageously to defend marriage equality, continuing to preach a message of love," Song said.
"Today is a step forward for the Methodist Church and LGBTQ community. As the child of two former deacons in the Methodist Church, this decision holds deep personal significance for me. And while the Methodist Church did not express its support for marriage equality despite this technical ruling, we will continue to stand with the thousands of other activists, members of the clergy, and parishioners working to amend the Methodist Church’s stance on marriage.”
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To read an excellent commentary by our columnist the Rev. Irene Monroe on how “United Methodist Church still wrong-headed on same-gender marriage,” click HERE.